Friday, May 27, 2011

Grid Lock

Parkside residents are well aware of the gently curving streets laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as part of their master plan for the Buffalo Park system.  Most Parkside houses follow suit, their facades aligned with the slight curve of the street.  But, standing at the corner of Jewett Parkway and Summit Avenue, it's immediately apparent that the Martin House ignores the sweeping curve of the parkway. 

Is the house out of alignment, or just in line with something else?

The conventional wisdom is that Wright liked to align his Prairie houses with the perfect grid planning ubiquitous in the American Midwest, tied into the Public Land Survey System that established a grid across the Prairie and Plains, and inspired by the Froebel tabletop grids of Wright's childhood experience.  Wright's Prairie grid is most often aligned with the cardinal directions of the compass - the low-tech forerunner of GPS - reflected in many Native American motifs representing the four directions and four winds, expressed in beadwork, basketry, and other traditional arts.  

First page of Wright's letter to Darwin D. Martin, May 11, 1903

But with the Martin House Complex, there may be a more specific, practical reason why the main house is aligned with an invisible grid, rather than with Jewett Parkway:  the simpler Barton House - the first building constructed on the site - calls the shots.  As evidenced by Wright's illustrated letter to Martin of May 11, 1903, Wright planned to align the Barton House with Summit Avenue and knew that the rest of the composition would have to follow suit in order to be "Wright."  

Wright's Oak Park Studio logo
The underlying force that prevents the main Martin House from squaring itself to Jewett Parkway is hiding in plain sight in Wright's letter:  the Celtic cross-inspired logo used in his Oak Park Studio letterhead.  This simplified mandala clearly shows Wright's design allegiance to working within the compass-aligned grid.  His "quadruple block" plan from "A Home in a Prairie Town" is a prime example of such a mandala translated to a residential planning proposal.
The quadruple block plan

By virtue of Wright's Prairie houses being almost exclusively in the Midwest, the vast majority of them are planned in step with the existing grid and cardinal directions.  There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions:  the Ward Willits house (Highland Park, IL, 1901), widely considered the first full-blown Prairie house, and Wright's own Taliesin (Spring Green, WI, 1911 -).  These exceptions point to that fact that, while Wright kept to the square grid throughout the Prairie period, he was already thinking of the grid as an abstraction which need not always align with the compass.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Booming Beacon

Congratulations to Martin House docent extraordinaire, Mike Osika, for receiving an Inaugural Beacon Award from Visit Buffalo Niagara!  Mike received the "Tourism Volunteer of the Year" award during VBN's National Travel & Tourism Week celebration.  

Mike's message as an ambassador for the Martin House and Western New York is always loud and clear!

Roots of "Tree" Revealed

Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" , recently unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival, sounds at least as enigmatic as Frank Lloyd Wright's art glass window design of the same name.  And the visual effects coordinator for the film was Dan Glass... Hmm... Is there a cosmic connection?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dear Mr. Wright

Dear Weekly Wright-up Readers:

At risk of sounding like a crumudgeon-in-training (which perhaps I am), I was reminded this week that the age of the personal letter, exemplified by the now quaintly cordial correspondence between Frank Lloyd Wright and Darwin D. Martin, is well behind us - and with it, maybe the age of civility as well.

The bizarre slap-fest between Congressional candidate Jack Davis and a cameraman (who turned out to be Republican rival Jane Corwin's staffer) is just the latest instance of adults behaving like overgrown playground bullies.  Such exchanges happen thousands of times a day on a smaller scale, thanks, in part, to the ready convenience of countless online forums.  There, civility is maintained only by the integrity of individual contributors, and more often than not, our worst nature, prejudice, and good ol' fashioned ignorance is laid bare.  Take, for example, the common mode of online chat and posting that gives the impression of innumerable keyboards with the caps-lock stuck - THE TEXT EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING!!!  Not to mention the utter lack of respect to others demonstrated by many who hide behind a username to exercise their First Amendment rights.

What does this have to do with the Wright-Martin letters of a century ago?  Nothing directly.  But it occurred to me that we could use a dose of the hard-wired etiquette practiced by Mr. Martin (if not always consistently by Mr. Wright).  No matter how the Martin House budget was rising or how long he had been waiting for a requested detail, Mr. Martin always addressed his architect as "Dear Sir," or "Dear Mr. Wright."  

Not to be a Philistine in this nostalgia for the slower, more genteel pace of personal letter exchange (you're reading this online, after all) - there's nothing inherent about cyberspace that promotes a breakdown in civility.  So what is it?  It could just be that people today are not less polite, but their lack of respect for others is just more widely publicized...

Sincerely Yours,

Eric Jackson-Forsberg

Friday, May 6, 2011

Wright Across the Street

Check out Buffalo Rising for an interesting post on everyone's favorite Martin House neighbor, the William Wicks house, now home to MHRC board member Donna DeCarolis.